As musical equipment evolves, so does the music that is made with it. But what of the musicians - how is their evolution determined by a microchip?
THE GAME OF trying to predict what course the development of electronic musical instruments and accessories is going to take used to be a common pastime amongst those with an interest in the subject. The majority of the punters - typically - were content to envisage more of the same, only smaller and cheaper. Equally typically, the majority of those who were smart enough to have got ourselves involved in the trade knew better - we could see all manner of more significant innovation just around the corner. Of course the details were never too clear...
Amusingly enough, developments that have given us smaller, cheaper versions of state-of-the-art musical equipment have been considerably more common than those of a more "informed" nature. The digital reverb revolution, for example, and the affordable sampler. And as for workstations: weren't we talking about the same thing when we mentioned the Fairlight or Synclavier? The difference is that very few people realistically expected to be able to afford either. You come across a lot less of this crystal ball gazing these days.
Taking stock of what's happened over the last five or so years, it's been a pretty disappointing time. There has been a number of notable instruments appear but they have represented more a refinement of existing technology than advancements in it. Both popular and more "serious" music has continued to evolve in the same way it's always evolved - subject to the forces of popular opinion, record company financial policies and even in response to some of this technology finding its way into younger, more liberal hands. But the smaller/cheaper/easier technological progress of the last half of the decade is having a tremendous effect on the music being made and consumed today: it has radically altered the expectations of everyone concerned. Musicians expect different things of their instruments, record companies expect different things of their artists and the record-buying public expect different things of the record companies. Typically (once again), it's the punter who's getting the worst deal. But that's another story.
Let's concentrate on the musician. From the best-paid pro down to the enthusiast of more modest means, the musician has raised his expectations of his gear. Obviously any new piece of equipment is expected to offer more features, quieter audio circuitry and greater compatibility with everything else. More significantly, the musician's expectations for his own music-making facilities have risen by an incredible amount. From writing on a cheap synth and drum machine and taking a mental picture of a piece of music into a studio with "professional" instruments, our musician is now doing pre-production work at home and taking instruments and computers into a studio expecting to be able to rebuild a bedroom setup next to a 30-channel desk and a multitrack tape machine. Many are already producing master-quality recordings by taking care with signal levels and mastering to a DAT recorder. Some are doing this without resorting to multitrack tape at all. If your music allows it, you can get by using MIDI sequencing and only electronic sound sources - although the cost of sample memory is now making it practical to incorporate acoustic sounds and non-MIDI instruments into a MIDI studio. Ask any small commercial studio owner: there are more recordings being made in people's back rooms than he'd ever have imagined possible.
The old-style keyboard player just doesn't exist any more. These days he (or she) is as familiar with equipment and techniques that have long been regarded as the territory of the studio engineer. It's no longer enough to confine your hi-tech shopping list to technology you can play you've got to include signal processors, mixers, patchbays, monitors... Even players on the cabaret circuit are cashing in on the convenience and flexibility of MIDI, sequencing and sampling. Today's MIDI-aware musician is realistically hoping to have a complete home studio at his or her disposal.
I suppose the logical way to sign off here is to recognise that you, the readership of this magazine, should expect different things of it - I certainly do. Recognised as a "keyboard players'" magazine, Music Technology has adapted over the years to reflect the interests and requirements of musicians using hi-tech equipment and practices. Signal processors have been a part of the regular coverage of the magazine for several years now. Last month you saw our first review of a "serious" mixing desk. It won't be the last, and you can expect to see small monitoring systems making an appearance very soon. You need to know about it to be able to use it.
Editorial by Tim Goodyer
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